The beginning of every school year brings new faces to Allegheny College’s campus — though it is rare that one of those new faces is the school’s president.
Hilary L. Link, former dean of Temple University Rome and 22nd president of Allegheny, began her tenure on July 1 after President James Mullen retired on June 30. She is the first female president in the history of the college.
“I feel really good about (being the first female president),” Link said. “Mostly because the reactions from students and alums, both male and female, have been really positive. … In some ways, selecting me signals an openness on the college’s part for a new direction and approach.”
Link said she is honored to be the first female president of Allegheny.
“I would like to believe I am a president, and not just a woman president,” Link said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase Allegheny. I think it’s great for young people, including my own three kids, to show that a college can have a woman president and it’s not that big of a deal. I also think it was time after 204 years.”
Link’s first experience with Allegheny happened when she was helping her twin nephews apply for college about 15 months before she began as Allegheny’s president. While reading through a book of colleges, Link saw Allegheny, she said.
“It talked a lot about the major and minor combinations, which resonated a lot with me because I have a great interest in interdisciplinarity and combining different interests,” Link said.
“Strangely, I got an email about a month later asking if I would ever consider Allegheny — and I said, ‘in fact, I would.’”
After approximately one month into the job, people who have met and worked with Link have expressed the great first impressions they have had of her.
“She’s wonderful, she really hit the ground running when she got here,” said Pamela Higham, assistant to the president. “She’s been a delight to get to know. I think she has a fantastic vision for the college. I truly believe students will love her, and I can’t wait for students to get to know her.”
Mary Feeley, member of the board of trustees, described the excitement Link has already brought to the table.
“She has a completely new energy and perspective,” Feeley said. “She has a diverse experience base, and she’s very smart. She listens very well, along with asking very good questions.”
After seeing Link in her first few meetings with the board, Feeley said she is confident Link is ready to learn.
“You can tell she really wants to have a deeper understanding of how things work,” Feeley said. “She’s also a very nice person, someone you just really want to talk to. She really just seems to get us, and what the board is trying to do. I think she’s a great addition and the board is very excited to have (Link) at the helm.”
Link described her transition from Rome to Meadville, including the challenges and differences between the two places.
“I’m so excited about being in this role and this community,” Link said. “That has really helped me keep my energy up in what has been a nonstop first month. What’s really interesting is the amount of data I’m asking my brain to process at all times. There are hundreds of new people and faces I’m getting to know, there are data and facts that I simply have to learn. It’s exhausting on your brain, but so energizing.”
Not only was her job transition interesting, Link said, but the physical move was as well. She said her family did not arrive until Aug. 9, and her belongings came a few days later.
“I’ve actually been living out of a suitcase for six weeks,” Link said.
Link outlined some of the similarities and differences between Temple Rome and Allegheny. Temple is a large public institution with 38,000 students between all of its campuses, but only 600 to 700 students on the Rome campus at a time. She said the vast majority of students were only on the campus for one semester.
“Everything seemed to happen a bit on warp speed,” Link said. “It was almost like your four years of college condensed into one semester. You would arrive, there was homesickness, there was culture shock, there was adapting to being in a totally different place, and then 14 weeks later students would leave.”
Link said that she would see a lot more of a transformation in one semester than there would normally be in a four-year college.
“That’s what I love about working with higher (education) institutions, is to get to know students when they come in and then see them evolve and transform and grow, and then see them as they move beyond,” Link said.
Because of these differences and because she is new to her position at Allegheny, Link said she wants to use the upcoming school year as a learning period and to see things as a prospective student might.
“Part of how I’m spending the next six to 12 months is just listening to people,” Link said. “I want to understand what their hopes and aspirations for Allegheny are.”
While she is the president of the college, Link said that she is moving in right along with the new students.
“I’ve been very honest with people in saying that I know less about the college than all of (the students), so I need to understand from all of (them) where the opportunities for the college to move forward are and might be,” Link said. “What I don’t want to do is come in and say, ‘OK total change of direction,’ because that’s not who I am, and that’s also not the right thing for the college.”
Link expressed that she wanted this year to be a dynamic learning year in which themes and small changes might emerge.
“Anytime you come into a new institution, you see things that the outgoing person hasn’t seen,” Link said. “And I’m watching that happen even in my former position. After awhile you’re so immersed in what you’re doing and the institution that you don’t see that.”
Before he retired, Mullen held meetings with Link, and he acted generously and warmly toward her, Link said.
“He was also very respectful of saying, ‘you know, I’ve had my own ways of doing things which were different from how my predecessor did them, and you will arrive at your own ways of being president and doing things as president and I don’t want to step on your toes,’ ” Link said.
Along with showing her kindness as she came into the position, Mullen was helpful in answering questions and giving advice, Link said.
“One piece of advice he gave me is, ‘look, you’re in this for the long term, you don’t have to do everything at once,’ ” Link said. “ ‘You need to educate yourself, but you also need to take care of yourself and your family, because that will allow you to better steward the college.’ ”
Link added that while she has big shoes to fill, she is really looking forward to meeting more of the students and finding her own ways of doing things.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know the students and for them to get to know me,” Link said. “One of the biggest challenges, I think, will be stepping into the big shoes left by President Mullen, because of how beloved he was by the students. That is remarkable because you don’t always hear that on a college campus.”
Link spoke on Mullen’s unique ways of doing things, and said she knew how all college presidents work differently.
“He really had his own unique ways, and I look forward to finding my own ways, which will inevitably be different in getting to know the students, and becoming a part of this campus community,” Link said. “I’m excited to get to know more of the students as they come, and to see how they change throughout.”
Students will have the opportunity to meet President Link at the student celebration, “Imagine the Possibilities,” which will be held in conjunction with the Involvement Fair from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday.